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Here's How Racism May Affect Mental And Physical Health

Research suggests racist statements or acts can over time lead to chronic stress and stress-related illnesses like hypertension.
Posted at 12:04 AM, Jun 02, 2018

Words have power. Racist words or statements — like these — over time can impact a person's mental and physical health. 

"It is just as painful as if you have been in a physical attack," says Dr. Anita Thomas, a clinical psychologist and the dean of the College of Applied Behavioral Sciences at the University of Indianapolis. "It leads to people being depressed, it leads to people being socially isolated or withdrawing." 

Thomas says being subjected to racist statements or acts, over time, can lead to chronic stress and stress-related illnesses like diabetes and hypertension.

"We certainly have research that shows that it can be a result of an experience that's directly experienced, but it also can be the results of witnessing, I think, now that we have social media and video clips. We probably are actually more traumatized and carrying more stress about the possibility of racism than we ever have in our country. And so that really will have long-term both mental and physical health implications," says Thomas.

Research suggests racial minorities may experience more stress-linked health problems because of discrimination. A compilation of studies found young people between 12 and 18 who reported they'd experienced discrimination were more likely to have mental illnesses than young people who didn't experience discrimination. And another review found black Americans who perceived they'd experienced racism were also more likely to have certain mental illnesses and reported an overall lower quality of life.

Thomas said: "We certainly know that people of color have higher hypertension rates, higher rates of diabetes, a lot of the stress-related illnesses, and that has, in the research, been correlated to experiences of oppression and discrimination. ... It's important for people to really remember and to know that a lot of the experiences we take unconsciously and may not process emotionally, but it does affect our physical health. So it certainly will change blood ... pressure... And that, over time, can then lead to a lot of the stress-related illnesses."

Racism can be bold and explicit, but it can also be subtle and still have an impact. 

Dr. Gina Torino is a psychologist who studies microagression. She says: "Racial microaggressions ... are very subtle forms of racism that are communicated verbally, behaviorally or environmentally. And some of the preliminary research in this area indicates that people who have experienced these type of microaggressions have symptoms of depression, withdraw from friends, withdrawal from work ... symptoms of anxiety, worry and distress. ... It's not just a single incident, it's the cumulative impact." 

Torino says some regional microaggressions have been found to impact suicidal thoughts or ideation that can happen to everyday people.

Both Torino and Thomas say there are warning signs of stress-related illness: inability to focus, withdrawing socially, or changes in sleep and eating patterns. When those symptoms appear, it might be time to see a medical professional. As for everyday microagressions, Thomas says there are healthy ways to manage them.

"You have to do two things," Thomas says. "You have to acknowledge that an experience of racism has occurred to you and that it was painful. And I think it's important for people to say, 'Yes, it was, that was my experience, and it hurts.' And then I think you need to engage in effective coping strategy. So whether it's finding social support, talking to other people about it, blogging, journaling — sharing that experience helps to depersonalize it. ... For whites, it's really important to listen to the person. And even if you don't think it's based on race, not to minimize it for the person."